Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Last evening at the Charleston Civic Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump certainly had a lot to say about coal miners. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:
The backdrop behind Trump was filled with men in miner’s stripes and hard hats waving “Trump digs coal” signs, and Trump peppered his remarks with his admiration for coal miners.
“I’ll tell you what folks, you’re amazing people,” Trump said. “The courage of the miners and the way the miners love what they do, they love what they do.”
“If I win we’re going to bring those miners back,” he said.
Then there was this:
Trump said he has “always been fascinated” by mining, “the engineering that’s involved and the safety and all that’s taken place over the last number of years.”
“All of it’s getting safe and as it gets safe they’re taking it away from you in a different way,” Trump said. “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete, so we’re going to take that all off the table folks.”
As Gutman also reported, Trump is offering no real plan for how he’s going to reverse the downward spiral of the Southern West Virginia coal industry, though he (like West Virginia Democratic front-runner Jim Justice) is making bold promises — promises — in the face of just about every credible projection or analysis of where coal is actually headed (see here, here and here).
Just as important, though, is another issue that Trump didn’t talk about at all: The growing crisis facing the pension and health-care funds that cover thousands upon thousands of United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families.
In the most recent UMWA Journal, union Secretary Treasurer Daniel Kane called this “the most important political issue facing the union right now. UMWA President Cecil Roberts told a U.S. Senate Committee in March:
… Today, there is a looming health care tragedy unfolding in the coalfields, with potentially devastating human effects. In many cases, the loss of health care benefits will be a matter of life or death. In all cases, it will be a financial disaster that the retired miners, who live on very meager pensions, will not be able to bear.
These are real people we are talking about. They live on small pensions, averaging $530 per month, plus Social Security. They rely very heavily on the health-care benefits they earned through decades of hard work in the nation’s coal mines … They spent decades putting their lives and health on the line every single day, going into coal mines across this nation to provide the energy and raw materials needed to make America the most powerful nation on earth. And they did that even though they knew they would pay a physical price for it.
Photo by Christian Tyler Randolph — Donald Trump receives a miners’ cap from West Virginia Coal Association vice presidents Chris Hamilton and Jason Bostic last night at the Charleston Civic Center. At left is Senate President and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole.
It’s important to remember that this looming crisis won’t go away, even if the coal industry were to suddenly rebound. The problems with the solvency of the UMWA pension plan, for example, grow from the 2008 financial meltdown (now, whose fault was that?). Even if employment were to return to pre-meltdown levels, many of the companies that were paying into the pension plan then have since been relieved of that obligation by the federal bankruptcy courts. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s far from clear that the rising contributions alone would be enough. The same goes for the union’s health-care plan financial problems.
As we’ve talked about before, President Obama has a proposal for dealing with this crisis. In Congress, members of both parties — Rep. David McKinley and Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito — have a proposal. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has a proposal.
But when the presumptive Republican nominee for president had a huge audience of coalfield families in the palm of his hand over at the Civic Center, he didn’t think that this issue was worthy of mention.